Houston restaurants are no strangers to reality TV. Everyone from Anthony Bourdain to Guy Fieri and Andrew Zimmern have explored the city's diverse culinary scene — eating everything from staples like barbecue and Tex-Mex to crawfish and Indian food.
Add Marcus Samuelsson to the list. The celebrity chef, best known for his New York restaurant Red Rooster, filmed an episode of his award-winning PBS/Eater series No Passport Required in Houston that airs tonight (Monday, January 27) at 8 pm (the episode is also available online).
In the episode, Samuelsson shows viewers a side of Houston that even locals may not be aware of: the city's rapidly growing West African community. In other words, the West African community's affect on the city can be felt in ways other than the two Rockets championships led by native Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon.
Samuelsson gets a taste of traditional West African cooking with visits to places such as the Nigerian restaurant Safari in Southwest Houston (also featured on chef David Cordua's Houston Public Media show, The Houston Cookbook) and Jolly Jolly Bakery. He also gets a more contemporary take on West African cuisine at Taste of Nigeria.
At Indigo, chef Jonny Rhodes shows how African cuisine influences his modern take on soul food with a dish of dry-aged pheasant stuffed with a take on jollof rice made with Carolina Gold rice. The meal prompts Samuelsson to reflect on the way that Rhodes explores the connections between African and Southern food.
"There's many reasons why we lost track of the links between West African food and Southern food, but they're all connected to systemic racism," Samuelsson says after his visit to Indigo. "Take slavery as the starting point to that, where the labor had no authorship of the food they were serving to the masters. 300 years later, the reference points are gone. Food gives us these reference points that can start the dialogue and help you understand."
Ultimately, the episode culminates in a glimpse of the future of how West African cuisine might reach the mainstream. Samuelsson leads a conversation with a group of people with West African heritage — including Chòp n Blọk founder Ope Amosu, NFL player Fendi Onobun, Aces of Taste founder Ahrif Sarum, and local musician Demola about life in Houston and how it's changed over the years. A local food writer also offers a few observations of his own about the rise of West African cuisine in Houston.
"When I came to Houston, I did not know what to think. Leaving, I see the future," Samuelsson concludes. "In other aspects of West African culture, it's hit the mainstream. There's tons of West African NFL players . . . The food is the last level that we can break. It's really a moment . . . This generation of cooks in Houston, this is the one that's going to break it."